Actress Sonja Sohn of HBO’s “The Wire” shared stories of the abuse she faced as the daughter of an abusive, schizophrenic Vietnam War veteran to a crowd of juvenile justice experts last Thursday morning.

Her lecture was the opening keynote address for the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s first-ever Leadership Evidence Analysis Debate Conference last Thursday and Friday, which focused on the discussion of at-risk youth.

“I accepted the offer to be here today for one reason and one reason only: I was one of those high-risk children,” Sohn, who is the founder and CEO of youth advocacy nonprofit ReWired for Change, said. “I wish guys like you were around when I was growing up.”

Sohn was referring to the 300 key activists from around the country who attended the conference, which has been over a year in the making.

“This is an effort [on the part of GPPI] to, from year to year, create a program around a certain topic that allows us to discuss and study policy development we do in certain areas,” Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at GPPI Shay Bilchik said. “We want to use this national conference as a vehicle to present our findings to the country.”

GPPI aspires to make LEAD an annual event, according to Bilchik.

“Our intent is to from year to year turn to a different center or core group of our faculty to develop a topic and take on issues through the lens of the work they do every day at GPPI,” Bilchik said.

According to Bilchik, the group present was geographically and professionally diverse, consisting of experts in a wide variety of fields, including behavioral health, education, juvenile justice, housing and employment.

“Different attendees will find different highlights in the topics raised by our speakers,” Bilchik said. “Some people will appreciate listening to the experiences of those like them who have spent time as representatives in local communities, while others will look forward to drilling down into our workshops.”

Throughout the two days of the conference, attendees had the opportunity to attend various breakout sessions and listens to panels of policymakers, practitioners, researchers and advocates express their views on how to best help the at-risk young people in their lives move forward in a constructive way.

On Thursday, the panelists shared their perspectives on which strategies are most effective from keeping children and teens from veering off-track, according to Bilchik. The same issues were approached from a systemic and policy-based level of analysis Friday.

In her keynote address, Sohn described her transformation from abused drug dealer to successful actress.

“I came to a conclusion: I had no power over my family,” Sohn said. “Although they lived in misery, I did not choose to live that way. I choose instead to cherish happiness.”

Above all, Sohn stressed that appealing to the human spirit and potential in children and teens from even the most devastating of circumstances is the key to unlocking positive outcomes.

“We must remember that there is a force guiding the lives of everyone around us,” Sohn said. “There is a power, whether you choose to call that thing a personal god or the power of the human spirit, that has the ability to create miracles out of tragedy, and that is our most undervalued and underused resource.”

Keynote speaker Mark Shriver, senior vice president of Save The Children’s U.S. Programs, delivered the closing address.

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